More Than A Toy

By Fisher, Bob; Heuring, David et al. | American Cinematographer, July 1989 | Go to article overview

More Than A Toy


Fisher, Bob, Heuring, David, Turner, George, Winterhalter, Martha, American Cinematographer


From a novelty to a giant industry

The importance of telling a story or capturing an event just as the eye records it - in motion - was attempted from the very beginnings of humankind. The dimmest recesses of history reveal our pictorial records as successions of movement. Continuity is present in prehistoric cave paintings, the tomb murals of ancient Egypt, figures on Grecian urns, in the scrolls and tablets of the Far East, the tapestries of Medieval Europe, and the tipis of the American Indians.

It wasn't until the early 19th Century that we learned how movement could be artificially reproduced so that it appeared to the viewer as though he was seeing it happen. Almost simultaneously in England, Germany, France, Russia and the United States, the art of motion pictures developed in various forms from the minds of many creators. The first were moving drawings, using such devices as the Zoetrope or the Phenatiscope.

These were parlor amusements, a series of drawings on a rotating wheel, each depicting a slightly different posturing of a figure. By moving the mechanism swiftly, drawings were animated and appeared to move. Real pictures of live subjects had to wait until long after the beginnings of photography, pioneered in the early 180Os by France's Necephore Niepce and England's William Henry Fox Talbot, even after the perfecting of the basic principle of photography by Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, whose "mirror with a memory" preserved a life-like image. To photograph the increments of motion would require a medium far more sensitive to light and a shutter system for the camera.

In 1882 in France, Dr. Etienne-Jules Marey conceived the idea of advancing a series of 12 photographs on a glass plate in a camera built on the principle of a revolver, but he had no way to control the speed at which the images moved. Eadweard Muybridge, an Englishman working in California, was able to photograph racing horses with a battery of still cameras along a race track. His invention of the Zoopraxiscope later permitted him to project tracings of the photographic images.

Augustine LePrince of France designed a multiple lens movie camera which took pictures on a 2-1/8' wide paper roll in 1886, and in 1888 built an improved single lens camera which made 20 exposures per second on a tanned gelatin base film. William Freise-Green and John A. Prestwick of England made sequential pictures on sensitized paper bands in 1888. In the following year Freise-Green and M. Evans made a camera which used a film with sprocket holes. These men and others are co-inventors of motion pictures, but none of their efforts alone yielded practical results. They belong, essentially, to the prehistory of motion pictures.

It was the laboratory of Thomas A. Edison at West Orange, New Jersey, which in 1887 produced the Kinetograph and the Kinetoscope, the first practical devices for the commercial production and exhibition of "moving pictures" as we know them. And in 1889 it was the invention of a clear, thin, strong and uniform strip film in the laboratories of George Eastman at Rochester, New York, that made Edison's devices possible.

Edison's idea, after seeing Marey's and Muybridge's experiments, was that it might be possible to record images just as his phonograph recorded sound, and to combine the two. His chief assistant, W. Kennedy Laurie Dickson, was given the task of developing what became the Kinetograph, a camera which could take sequential photographs on a strip of sensitized material.

Finding such a material proved to be a seemingly insuperable problem. Paper proved unsatisfactory because of its texture and lack of clarity. Celluloid, which had been invented years before, seemed a possible answer, but was not made in strip form and was thick, uneven and insufficiently clear.

Eastman recalled in a letter to F. H. Richardson (March 18, 1925) that:

"About the year 1883 or 1884, in connection with William H. …

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